Inheriting Her Life: Toronto’s Poet Laureate Remembers Emma Goldman

Emma Goldman seated, photo by T. Kajiwara, 1911 July 15. Library of Congress.

Franca Iacovetta & Cynthia Wright, with thanks to A.F. Moritz

…the new Toronto comrades engulfed you,

a happy flood, and carried you

like a spirit in its pinnace, its canoe,

on a shining spate, a spring rill

of refreshing flame through a magic land

to that evening’s party.

When the pandemic came, we were planning a symposium to mark the 80th anniversary of Emma Goldman’s 1940 death in Toronto. As historians researching the intergenerational memory of Goldman’s Toronto exile, we wanted to bring together scholars, activists, and cultural workers involved in new research and critical engagement with Goldman and anarchist history. Over two years later, in October 2022, we finally hosted that University of Toronto-sponsored Symposium, and a performance by the Theatre Group of the Toronto Workers’ History Project of Craig Heron’s Emma’s Last Visit (directed by Aida Jordão) at St. Vladimir Institute.

But the event’s most explicitly commemorative moment was a reading by A.F. Moritz, Poet Laureate of Toronto (2019-23), of Inheriting Your Life: Homage to Emma Goldman, an original poem written at our request. A prolific, award-winning poet, Moritz is also co-author, with Theresa Moritz, of The World’s Most Dangerous Woman: A New Biography of Emma Goldman (Subway 2001), the only full-length study of Goldman’s three residencies in Toronto during the 1920s and 1930s. Our invitation to Moritz fit with our project on how generations of activists and cultural producers have recovered, invoked, and remade Goldman and what that tells us about the continuities, discontinuities, and complexities of anarchist history. We hoped, too, that a poem written by Toronto’s Poet Laureate to mark a major anniversary of Goldman’s death could help bring wider attention to Goldman’s activism in Toronto and that of the multilingual community of Yiddish, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, and other comrades who lived the revolution as best they could.

Moritz’s 22-minute epic poem did not disappoint. Inheriting Your Life is both erudite and intimate, and a love letter to Emma. As a poet, lifelong anarchist, and Goldman biographer, Moritz stands out from the many cultural producers who have drawn inspiration from Goldman; his ability to write in two registers (historical and literary) lends richness and depth to Inheriting Your Life. After a “prominent literary man” and publisher who belonged to Moritz’s anarchist group in Toronto wanted a study of Goldman’s Toronto exile to replace the “few random, fragmentary anecdotes that kept being repeated,” explained Moritz at the symposium, he and Theresa Moritz took it on. Expecting to write a pamphlet based on newspaper research, they found rich and largely untapped primary sources, including documents in the Emma Goldman Papers Project headed by Candace Falk. In the process, they realized that Goldman had spent 20% of her exile in Toronto and “that her time here was crucial” with “its own story to tell.”

The Moritizes show us an older but still politically vital and sexually active Goldman even as she copes with a body ravaged by age, poverty, police beatings, and imprisonment. They show Goldman’s life in Toronto as closely intertwined with the major themes of her exile: the disenchantment with Russia, the search for a base of action, the lessons of Italian anti-fascism, and the desperate need to aid destitute anarchist exiles from the Spanish Civil War. It challenges the portrait drawn by US writers who, having branded the Russian-born Goldman an American rebel heroine, glossed over her time in Canada or stressed her unhappiness at being stuck in a dull Protestant backwater.[i]

A literary triumph, Inheriting Your Life also offers a creative entry into Toronto’s radical history. We situate it within an unusually rich and virtually continuous archive of memory-making around Goldman in Toronto, one that extends from the eulogy delivered by social gospeller Salem Bland at Goldman’s 1940 Toronto funeral to the 2014 dedicated legacy plaque on Spadina Avenue through to recent episodes of the TV series, Murdoch Mysteries. The contrast between the fragmentary anecdotes that have historically circulated about Goldman and the voluminous cultural production is noteworthy. True, Goldman is a much-commemorated figure, especially in the US where, as biographer Alice Wexler notes, she “entered most deeply into the popular imagination.”[ii] From the feminist re-discovery of Goldman in the 1960s and 1970s and the biographies from the 1980s and 1990s to the new scholarly and graphic histories of the 2000s, US writers and cultural workers have made Goldman a rebel icon even as some critiqued her sexual and political choices. The best-known cultural productions featuring Goldman include E. L. Doctorow’s 1975 novel, Ragtime and the 1981 movie, Reds.

Cities like New York and Chicago are far more closely associated with Goldman than Toronto, Montreal and Winnipeg, Canadian cities she knew from her extensive lecture tours in the years before her 1919 deportation. Goldman’s NYC East Village home is a staple of many radical walking tours and, in death, her body was returned to the US for burial in Chicago’s Waldheim Cemetery. Her gravesite, near her beloved Haymarket Martyrs, attracts countless admirers. Yet radical commemoration in Chicago is arguably, and understandably, more focused on the Haymarket Martyrs and Lucy Parsons, widow of martyr Albert Parsons as well as a leading anarchist with her own complex personal and political history.[iii]

We propose that Toronto’s virtually uninterrupted genealogy of Goldman-related cultural production is unique, both for its volume and range. Canadian feminist popular recovery of Goldman from the late 1960s to the 1990s may have paled in comparison to the US (even as feminism in Canada was more inflected with anarchism than has been acknowledged), but the considerable artistic production includes Carol Bolt’s celebratory play, Red Emma: Queen of the Anarchists, first performed at Toronto Free Theatre in 1974. While focused on the early US years and Goldman’s role in plotting Alexander Berkman’s assassination attempt of industrialist Henry Clay Frick, the play’s adaptation into a film for CBC TV (1974), and later an opera in 1995, meant further exposure to Goldman among Toronto’s publics.

Goldman’s surviving Toronto comrades were central to certain subsequent productions, including the radio documentary on Goldman’s Toronto exile that ran on CBC Ideas in 1983, and Coleman Romalis’s documentary, The Anarchist Guest (2000). Rosemary Donegan’s 1984 exhibit and 1985 book, Spadina Avenue (Douglas & McIntyre), located Goldman in the rich political and cultural life of the street’s working-class Jewish population. The punk scene of the anarchist space Who’s Emma? in Kensington Market between the mid-1990s and early 2000s also belongs to this genealogy, even as it reflects some historical shifts in anarchism’s social base and orientation. More recent work includes John Miller’s 2007 novel, A Sharp Intake of Breath, and Heron’s play, which premiered in Toronto’s Steelworkers Hall in 2019. Also noteworthy are artworks that never materialized including, from the late 1990s, a monument (Veer) to Goldman. The story of why Alan Tregebov and the late Bernie Miller—who later moved to Winnipeg and co-built the streetcar sculpture installed in downtown Winnipeg in 2019 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Winnipeg General Strike—never built Veer speaks to how class shapes the city’s public art.[iv]

While the unbroken history of cultural production suggests an unchanging anarchism, the reality is that the 1940s marked a major break. Anti-fascist work and prisoner defense consumed much anarchist attention (including Goldman’s) in the interwar period as anarchist-led mass labour organizing declined. The 1919 deportations of immigrant radicals (including Goldman) and anti-Black pogroms together were “part of a larger project of class decomposition that reconfigured the racial, ethnic, and political characteristics of the US working class.”[v] By the 1940s and 50s, many anarchists in North America would turn to anti-war work. The Libertarian, an anarchist periodical produced in the late 1960s by the Toronto Libertarian Group (TLG) on a Gestetner owned by Attilio Bortolotti and partner Libera Martignago, indexes some of these changes. Well documented is Bortolotti’s much earlier interwar anti-fascist activism and Goldman’s decisive role in preventing his deportation to fascist Italy. Subsequently, the TLG included younger members like Robert Katz, a Vietnam War resister who learned of “Art” from Yiddish anarchists in New York, and Canadians Robert Campbell and Leonard Tarka, as well as older Italian and Spanish comrades. Bortolotti (Art Bartell), who died in 1995 at age 91, funded anarchist projects and helped to keep alive Goldman’s memory for a new generation to inherit.[vi]

As for Moritz’ Inheriting Your Life, it is a strikingly intimate poem. Instead of the young bad-ass American rebel icon that graces many T-shirts, posters, and mugs, it offers a tender portrait of an older, beloved Goldman. When asked about the challenge of writing about such a formidable subject, Moritz replied, “If you love something worthy, you’ll never be totally worthy of it. And then you get that gift. It thinks you’re worthy of it.” “Myself,” he added: “I think Goldman might have gone home and said, ‘well there’s this, that, and the other problem with this poem,’ but, in the end, she would have really loved that somebody wrote her that poem.” The audience clearly agreed. We invite you to watch the video of Moritz reading Inheriting Your Life and to consider using this gift as a teaching tool in the classroom, the workplace, or the streets.

Franca Iacovetta is a Toronto-based historian and a member of the collective.

Cynthia Wright teaches in the School of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies, York University, Toronto/Tkaronto.

Further Reading

Video of the Poetry Reading:

Text of the Poem:


[i] For just one example, Alice Wexler, Emma Goldman in Exile: From the Russian Revolution to the Spanish Civil War (Beacon Press, 1992).

[ii] Alice Wexler foreword to Sharon Rudahl, A Dangerous Woman: A Graphic Biography of Emma Goldman (The New Press, 2007) vii.

[iii] Jacqueline Jones, Goddess of Anarchy: The Life and Times of Lucy Parsons, American Radical (Basic Books, 2017)

[iv] Interview with Jeanne Randolph, Winnipeg, 7 May 2019

[v] Andrew Cornell, Unruly Equality: U.S. Anarchy in the 20th Century (University of California Press, 2016) 14.

[vi] The Libertarian, 1:1 (May 1968); interview (zoom) with Katz, 11 Nov. 2021; Campbell (in-person) Montreal, 13 Dec. 2021, with thanks for copies of the periodical; email exchanges with Tarka, Katz, and Campbell, Nov-Dec 2021.

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One thought on “Inheriting Her Life: Toronto’s Poet Laureate Remembers Emma Goldman

  1. Julie Guard

    This story is fascinating and the poem is moving. Great story, about which so little is generally known. Many people have the tee shirt, but how many know about the life?

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